- October 1, 2020 2:36 AM
- June 15, 2021 1:16 PM
- October 22, 2019 12:12 PM
This interview was first published on June 15, 2020.
PHNOM PENH - Vath Chamroeun is an athlete who excels in six martial arts and sports. A 7-Dan black belt in karate and 3-Dan in judo, he also practices hapkido, taekwondo ITF and free boxing. He competed in wrestling in the 1996 Summer Olympics as part of Cambodia’s National Olympic Team.
Now serving as secretary general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC), he holds a master’s degree in sport administration from a U.S. university. An all-round athlete who has shined in sports and martial arts, what prompted Chamroeun to get involved in sport in his youth and to turn this into a profession later on? ThmeyThmey’s journalist Ky Soklim met with Vath Chamroeun.
Ky Soklim: Since the 1990s, you have been involved in many different sports and martial arts. What prompted you to do so?
Vath Chamroeun: Everyone was born in different circumstances. None of my family members had any connection with sport. After the Khmer Rouge regime, I lived in Kean Svay [a small community on the outskirt of Phnom Penh]. Back then, former Khmer Rouge army kids would bully me on a regular basis, sometimes to the point of injury. I would ask myself why should I allow those kids to do this to me. When I came to Phnom Penh in 1983, I happened to meet a martial art teacher who taught judo in the Olympic Stadium. He invited me to join in. Being tired with those bullies, I decided to train in judo followed by karate. I took revenge on them when I returned to Kean Svay as a way to release my anger.
Ky Soklim: What levels have you reached in martial arts?
Vath Chamroeun: Until recently, I had only obtained 3rd Dan black belt in judo. Then, I switched from judo to learn wrestling abroad as another skill. As for karate, I started practicing when I was 12, was a karate teacher for 10 years, and obtained a 7th Dan black belt in practical combat from the Japan Karate Federation.
Ky Soklim: Is your 7th Dan black belt the highest in Cambodia?
Vath Chamroeun: Not exactly. There are many martial art institutions out there that recognize martial art learners differently. There are learners who also receive 7th Dan or even 8th Dan black belts.
Ky Soklim: Would you talk about your skills in free boxing?
Vath Chamroeun: While learning judo, I met a teacher by the name of Nuth Hour, who also happened to teach free boxing. What started as casual training grew into an interest. In 1987, I entered the ring even though I was still in training. Every day, I got injured: bruises and blood. Because of this, my teacher suggested that I give up free boxing because he did not want me to go through the pain. So, my boxing skills did not last long.
Ky Soklim: How about your taekwondo?
Vath Chamroeun: While I was training in wrestling in North Korea, I secretly managed to study taekwondo at the International Taekwon-Do Federation headquarters.
Ky Soklim: How did you start developing your wrestling skills and can you explain to me your deformed ears, which came about due to wrestling?
Vath Chamroeun: In 1993, Cambodia was preparing to enter the SEA [Southeast Asian] Games and the Cambodian government sent me along with other candidates to train in North Korea for two years. This training preparation was serious and highly demanding. Before the training, my ears were normal and healthy. They became deformed because wrestling involves putting lots of physical pressure on your head and ears both while attacking and defending. Ears are not bones. They are cartilages, which are prone to impact. My ears swelled badly during my training. I had to extract the inflamed fluid from my swelling ears and covered them with penicillin to cure them and make them hard in order to keep on training. For the first six months of intensive training, I repeatedly fainted. I ran 10K around the mountain with sandbags attached to my body. It was so demanding, I wanted to give up many times. However, I was told that I could not just return home.
Ky Soklim: How did you communicate with your parents in Cambodia?
Vath Chamroeun: I communicated with them through letters, which were delivered by the North Korean representative who traveled to Cambodia. At most, I could only send four letters in two years. I did not tell my parents about the physical and emotional pain I went through. I had to bear what I was assigned to accomplish. Unfortunately, the 1995 SEA games in Thailand did not include wrestling. So, I had to prepare to compete in the 1996 Summer Olympics in the city of Atlanta, which is located in the state of Georgia in United States.
Ky Soklim: Did you succeed in the Olympics?
Vath Chamroeun: No, I did not. I succeeded one round, but I failed another two rounds. When I came back to Cambodia after my training in North Korea, I was not able to improve my wrestling skills. Back then, no one in Cambodia was capable of practicing wrestling with me. For one year, I had no one to practice with before going to the 1996 Summer Olympics. My North Korean friend [Kim Il], who also trained with me in North Korea, got the gold medal but not me.
Ky Soklim: In North Korea, besides your training, how did your daily routine or your daily life look like?
Vath Chamroeun: That country was very strict in terms of communication. I could not interact much with other people beside the people I trained with. However, the living conditions of the trainees were very well taken care of and managed. We were special guests sent by the Cambodian government.
Ky Soklim: In the 1990s, there were rumors to the effect that the North Korean bodyguards of the former king, HM Norodom Sihanouk, were very skilled and specialized so that they could even hit a cow and kill it in one blow. Would you share some insights about this?
Vath Chamroeun: I may know some of them and yes, those bodyguards were highly trained. Every single day, they trained to the max. Sometimes, they even trained by pushing metal nails in wooden planks. They may not have looked very big, but their muscles were dense. If they hit it at the right spot, technically yes, they could kill a cow.
Ky Soklim: Where did you learn all those martial art skills?
Vath Chamroeun: I was well-trained in North Korea in terms of wrestling. In France, I continued learning judo, karate and wrestling. Hapkido and free boxing in Cambodia. Plus, I also received certificates as a professional trainer, a sport psychologist as well as a first aider. Apart from that, I had the opportunity to get a master’s degree in sport and business administration from one of the American universities. The sport institution also taught me to be a course director and administrator representing the International Olympic Committee. This is a highly qualified title that I can use to teach in any country things that relate to my profession.
Ky Soklim: What do you teach?
Vath Chamroeun: Mainly, I teach sport administration, which include sport’s history, the evolution of its management, its structure and much more.
Ky Soklim: There is a question that is usually raised by the public. Between karate, judo, hapkido and any other martial arts, which one is the most powerful whether it is fought in the ring or on the street?
Vath Chamroeun: In the theory of martial arts, it is clearly stated that all fighting art forms are more or less pretty much the same. The strongpoint resides within the person. If a person learns one type of martial arts with absolute precision and devotion along with creativity, then that person can be considered strong enough. The number of martial arts does not always matter. However, for me, judo and wrestling are very effective for killing or knocking your opponents unconscious.
Ky Soklim: Can you fight against five or even six people simultaneously?
Vath Chamroeun: I have not experienced that specific scenario yet. However, I have been involved in real fights outside the ring twice since I started training. The first time was next to the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh. It was during a football match and concerned disagreements regarding money. I used my wrestling skills to easily knock down my opponents. The second time was when I was traveling in a French metro. A group of Islamic people threatened me with their Swiss Army knives, demanding my money. I was not scared. I fought back and they simply ran away to another subway car.
Ky Soklim: Between your legs and your arms, which ones do you feel are more powerful?
Vath Chamroeun: I can control my legs more precisely than my arms. In one jump, I could produce three attack movements with my legs before touching the ground.
Ky Soklim: Nowadays, do you still want to show your strength against a threat as you did when you were younger?
Vath Chamroeun: As a senior martial art teacher, I have to be wise and very considerate in terms of my strength. When being confronted by a threat, I usually told myself to walk away. Some young people wanted to cause trouble…I just told them not to get involved. At one point, you have to be wise. Sometimes, a trained person’s fist can be registered as a lethal weapon: One punch may end a life.